The Economic Adventures of a Transborder Street Musician

Heading down south for the big Pesos.

Nicelandia… March 13, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized,Wednesday — ramonalvarado @ 6:41 pm
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gus’ downtown pic 

*Photograph by dear friend Gustavo Martinez

Again, across the river, as a welcoming message, laid that smoggy hue. It was just there floating as if waving hello in slow motion, heavier than the power of the gentle breeze that felt too lazy to struggle with it. 

I arrived to my area from the side street and discovered that a shop in the front, one of those predatory finance companies, had a PA system full blast with loud C music and an even louder DJ repeating over and over that they could get you out of debt…with a loan. So if I actually stood where I always do, at the left side of the main entrance to the museum, I would be straight across the speakers and would have had no voice by the end of the first song. I didn’t of course and opted to head towards the corner, probably one of the busiest corners in the whole 1.4.million people town. At first it was kind of difficult to hear myself but I then managed to modulate my voice and the guitar to get something out of it. I guess what usually helps me be louder just a hundred feet from there are the walls of the buildings facing me. At the corner my voice just goes everywhere without bouncing back.

I arranged mys guitar case with the essential anchor charm: a dollar bill and three coins holding it from flying out. The day was perfect and I played for a good hour, rested a little bit and then played a half more. As I have discussed in previous post, the mere fact of being there spraying my voice against the whole revolving chaos gives me sudden chuckles, outbursts of joy comparable to those expressed in a drunken state when surrounded by very good friends. I think its the nonsense of it all. I managed to gather a crowd that stayed for a whole song, that is always a pretty cool thing. It gave energy to continue playing after I had finished my first set. People even threw coins from cars which even though might be with the best of intentions it does not strike me as something I want hapening all the time.

Day 18


Amount of money made: $7.37

Time Played: 1h 25m

Exchange rate: 10.67 pesos/dollar


71°F February 14, 2008

Filed under: Wednesday — ramonalvarado @ 1:32 am
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I wasn’t going to, I had other things to do during the day and besides I hadn’t quite properly prepared but I went for it anyway because the weather said so. I looked out the window, decided to do it and then gathered up my stuff. I went to the room in the back to tune my guitar with my Wurlitzer tuner/something else (500 lb. church organ or something like that), cut the excess string from the new strings I’d just installed yesterday, grabbed the guitar strap from my son’s guitar, put it on mine, got it in the case. I also changed clothing from a t-shirt to a shirt and a coat, I got my passport and put it in my purse (I’ll keep on calling it like that, don’t you even mention it!), grabbed my goggles, reflective vest, helmet and a sip of water just before heading out.

Right at the door I decided that it was a bit much to carry the purse with me when my guitar case had extra pockets for gear. So I went back to seat my guitar on the couch, got my camera, my chain and my passport out of the purse and into the guitar case pockets.

As I was going out I thought it was a bad idea to have my passport just dangling around with the rest of the stuff, so I stopped, got it out and into the little side pocket of my coat it went. Once outside I got my goped started, warmed it up a bit, accelerated on neutral two or three times and headed towards the front yard door. While doing so I felt a bit overdressed. Never mind wearing a fancy shirt or  a coat to busk in the streets, but rather the fact that such a coat was dark dark blue and made out of wool while it was sunny and 71°F outside. So I went back in, threw the coat on the bed, got another sip of water, rushed out, got on the goped and took off.


The ride was quite nice actually. The streets of downtown El Paso were buzzing with people and they all stared at the goped as if it was something out of this world, not like cool-out of this world, but rather ridiculous-out of this world. With a face that seemed to say something like “what’s that gonna do when it gets squashed by a Hummer!” Anyway, I arrived at the bridge, proceeded to lock my goped and helmet and as I walked towards the booth to pay my 35c to cross the bridge I remembered…the coat, the little left side inner pocket and my passport inside of it. Needless to say, I didn’t make it across the border. It was just one of those instances where you can picture the strawberry ice cream ball tumbling towards the floor from your clumsily tipped cone, all in slow motion. I just unlocked my goped, got on it and headed back home full speed.


Not quite yet… January 10, 2008

Filed under: busking,street performing,Wednesday — ramonalvarado @ 1:34 am
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tin tanmision de guadalupe

So I waited all day at home yesterday for the owner of that guitar to arrive, I had my mind set. I woke up very early, made myself a cup of coffee, scribbled down a full set of ten or 11 songs and played it full volume in the kitchen. After finishing it up with a bang I released the strap from the guitar (that much is mine), sat the guitar in my tripod and dutifully cleaned it with some kind of weird wood oil that we use in furniture. I also retuned it properly with that 500 lb tuner of mine, because I know nobody won’t once she’s home. In other words I petted the guitar with that condescending cloth of prideful deliverance that says “here, you can have it back but she’ll never be the same.” I mean I could almost see myself saying, when the time to give it up came, “she’ll come back to me the second you neglect her” but that would be a little too freaky considering the fact that she‘s actually an it and has no life of its own apart from my melodramatic imagination. Anyway so I just decided not to play it all throughout the day and instead invest all that time practicing with my Turkish drum. I tuned it, cleaned it, and practiced for hours between breakfast and lunch banging along really festive Middle Eastern and Eastern European music, I was actually excited about the whole instrument change and stuff but, you guessed it, the guitar owner didn’t show up.

Now, I know that she could drop by any time so I’m still going to have that drum ready. Nevertheless I decided to go busking today with the guitar. After two weeks without doing so I was nervous again. I walked around towards the Velarde area which I had come to like quite a lot, but the PA systems were just overwhelming, so I just returned towards the museum and did my set there twice. It was quite a regular day except for the fact that I got tired pretty soon. I did walked around after I finished up busking and by the time I walked back towards Juarez avenue to walk it up to the bridge I saw that the accordion and cup duo were back playing at the corner of the museum. I thought that was cool, I thought they had given up. 

having fun

After changing my pesos for dollars a lady stopped me and told me that I was a really good singer and that she likes to see me outside the museum, she congratulated me and wished me luck, that was actually pretty cool. 

Day 16


Amount of money made: $8.11

Time played: 1h 2om

Exchange rate: 10.96 pesos/dollar



Triple trip and a kick to top the cake. December 15, 2007

catedralLa morenaza

Because of Tuesday’s result I decided to try a variation. I tried the same spot as Tuesday, in front of the shoe store, and I tried my usual place at the museum but before that I tried another place just a block away from the shoe store. It is the same market area where only pedestrians can walk. To get there I went through the same sea of people that I passed on Tuesday but this day I even got to  see a fight between a drunken  old man and another guy. I guess It wasn’t really a fight but rather a situation where the drunken old man was bothering people to the point where somebody from the crowd had to intervene and throw him to the ground. I have it on video. Why do I have it on video? you might ask. Well because it happened as I had my camera out to picture the huge crowd around the Matachines‘ show in front of the cathedral. Today was the big day for Their Lady of Guadalupe and the crowd was going wild.


The first spot I played at has a couple of cantinas in front and behind it and what I think might be an extremely dilapidated and weird looking brothel too. I know this doesn’t make it sound like a great spot, but one has to consider the crowd, which is the one that makes the vibe of it all. This place is pretty good for busking but it just so happened that as I was setting up my stuff another group of Matachines came to perform a few hundred feet from me, they are really loud with their drums and their thousand nutshells attached to their ankles. The good and the bad thing is that they came and went. I believe it is a ritual amongst merchants in Mexico to bless their markets and so they always dedicate an altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe and then have the Matachines perform their ritual dance around the market place to finish up in front of the altar, so this guys were just circling the area back and forth. This gave me a few minutes of silence every now and then. I played my set and got some very good response to it, including a “Qué chingón!!” yell from a transient (which in English means something like “Holy mother of Christ, that rocks!” only with mildly less religiously enthusiastic language).

At the second spot I started my set with a song in spanish and attracted some attention, a few coins and a few stares. By the second song I had a little crowd of  7 or 10 people, one of them dancing. When I finished it up they applauded and then the dancing girl approached me and asked: ” Why are you playing here?” I thought it was a wide open question so I asked her to specify and she said: ” Well, you don’t look poor.” I talked to them for a while and explained that among other things I was also trying to break that precise preconception and that I would be really happy to see more and more actual street performers who were not afraid of that socio-economic stigma. They agreed and said it was a very cool thing, but when I told them that I had to get back to work and continue to play, they thought I was ditching them. I guess it’ll take more time for them to understand that there is indeed some kind of seriousness to the performing side.

I decided to finish the day at the front of the Museum, it’s just a very nice spot and it seems to call me. When I got there I noticed that at the eastern corner of the building a young guy and his sister (I think) were performing. He plays the accordion and she holds a cup. They both look as if they don’t really want to be there and he plays sitting on the sidewalk. I had seen them on Tuesday and gave them a few coins. I thought about them and about approaching them but they look really shy. So what I did was to go all the way to the other corner of the building instead of staying at the entrance so that I wouldn’t bother them or take any possible tip away from them. This was inevitable though, and I felt kind of bad. I thought about approaching them and telling them some tips, because the guy can obviously play the accordion pretty well, but I don’t want to sound condescending or snobbish as if I knew everything by telling them what has worked for me. The girl keeps covering her mouth with the arms of her sweatshirt (as a nervous tic I think) as she puts the Burger King cup on your face when you walk pass them. It seems to me like they are doing everything wrong in terms of making their busking efficient and pleasant, but how do I tell them?

BK brothers

So anyway I went to the complete opposite side of the building, played, got some good money and as I was getting ready to wrap up my last song this weird looking lady came and stopped by my side. She suddenly started to mimic my movements and although it was funny I realized that she wasn’t right in the head. So I wrapped it up and began to pick my stuff up. She looked at me and told me: “Suelte un aguilar ¿o qué?” This is roughly translated to ” Let go of an Aguilar, or what?” At this point I kind of knew what she was aiming for because she kept eyeing my purse and my hat, but I also didn’t understand what she was saying. So I asked: ” Do you mean a song by Antonio Aguilar (A big Norteño musician)? I don’t really do that kind of music, I’m bad with covers” I said. I kept on putting my stuff away, I grabbed my purse (some people would call it a male hand bag but screw that, its a purse) and the money and she approached my guitar and with her extremely long and scary nails she went through each one of the strings. I told her that she should be careful because they could snap and hurt her. She didn’t hear me, she continued and said that she had been in a fight earlier during the day and showed me her nails by putting them very near my face. At this point I kind of understood what she was trying to do so I played stupid. She asked for that Aguilar again and I told her about the famous singer again to which she replied: “No te hagas pendejo (Don’t play stupid), que sueltes una lana (give me some money). At this point I had everything with me and my guitar was behind me so I told her that I wouldn’t, that I had just worked for it and that wasn’t the way to ask anyway. So she slowly walked towards my right side, took a long look at me from top to bottom and then kicked me on the side of the leg. She couldn’t really stand up properly, drunkness I guess, so I barely felt the kick. She quickly took off to bother some other guy selling I don’t know what and I just kept walking towards the bridge. I later thought about that Aguilar thing and recalled that peso coins all have an eagle stamp in the back. The word for eagle in Spanish is águila, so “Aguilar” being a famous last name and having to do with águila, is a slang for money. Now I know and you do too in case you get to see her once upon a border town.

Day 10


Amount of money made: 14.58

Time Played: 1h 55m

Exchange rate: $11.08p/dollar